Archive for the 'Uncategorized' Category

2010 in Review

In review… Get it? Hahaha.

Anyway, this year I read 102 books, which may seem like a lot to people who have real jobs and kids and active social lives. I have none of those things so I really feel like I could have read more this year. I tell myself that my discussion sites have caused me to slow down and read more carefully but even so, I hope to read at least 125 books in 2011.

I reviewed 75 books between I Read Odd Books and I Read Everything. Having never done this sort of thing before, I’m not sure how much better I could have done, but if this number is low, I take comfort that most of my discussions average around 2,000 words. Many are longer. Had I crapped out 75 one-paragraph reviews, I would definitely think that number too low. But given the depth I try to engage in when the book warrants it, I’m actually surprised I managed to discuss so many books. If I can beat that in 2011, that would be wonderful. Let’s see what happens.

It seems no “year in review” is complete without some sort of list, so here’s my 2010 list: Books I Thought About the Most in 2010. Not the best books I read in 2010 and not the worst – simply books that, for whatever reason, stayed with me. These are books from both I Read Odd Books and I Read Everything and cover a lot of ground.

10. The Membranous Lounge by Hank Kirton
I have yet to discuss this book but it definitely makes the list of books I am still thinking about. I received this in the mail, no explanation or entreaty to review it, and had some trepidation before reading it. I’m very glad I read it because the stories were amazing, both harsh and ethereal, gritty and dreamy. It was a surprise that such a tight, well-written, fascinating collection would come to me so stealthily. Two stories in this book – about a serial killing pair of women and a carny sideshow act who exacts revenge upon men who ill use her – were so shocking, interesting and unexpected that they likely will have resonance with me for a long time. I look forward to reviewing this one when it finally comes up in my queue.

9. How to Eat Fried Furries by Nicole Cushing
This book has the rare distinction of being one of the few books I have ever read that raised the hair on the back of my neck. Literally. There is a scene in this book that is so very eerie that I still don’t know if I can explain its power because the scene is merely a group of women trying to passively coerce another woman into doing something she does not want to do. Don’t be led astray by the title. This book is not about furries as they have come to be portrayed in media, but rather is a reference to society’s attempts to become more comfortable with cannibalism. A pack of demented ferrets fighting crime, the Angel Uriel in a prop plane helping the last few humans in the squirrel armageddon, people choosing to live without skin – this book is grotesque, funny, weird and upsetting. It was also Nicole’s first book with Eraserhead Press, in the New Bizarro Author Series, and is a stunning first effort.

8. The Source: The Untold Story of Father Yod, Ya Ho Wa 13, and The Source Family by Isis Aquarian
I have yet to discuss this book but have still managed to annoy the author as I spoke of it in my personal journal and called it a story of a Jesus Freak cult, a position I defend but one that nevertheless can seem flippant and derogatory as neither word in common parlance today conveys anything positive. But The Source were Jesus Freaks and cultish in the truest definition of these descriptives and the reason this book has stayed with me is because Isis Aquarian, the person who was assigned the role of documentarian for The Source Family, shows a fascinating look at fascinating people during a tumultuous time in American history. But it has also stayed with me because after coming across as a jerk to Aquarian, I looked hard at what makes a cult, what makes a malignant cult, and how it is that a cult can be both benign and malignant in the same ways traditional religious groups can be both. All in all, a deeply interesting book and another one I look forward to discussing in depth.

7. Naive. Super by Erland Loe
I was recommended this book by a clerk at Book People when I asked him to tell me the strangest book he had ever read. And it was strange. Sweetly strange. It was both accessible and unlike anything I have ever read before. I loved the protagonist of this novel, a kind and simple young man who wants to know the meaning of life, and again, this is a book I have yet to discuss and cannot wait to talk about it here.

6. Perversity Think Tank by Supervert
An attempt to determine and define what perversity truly is, this book is an intellectual look at sexual perversion and what separates it from basic human depravity. The book is arranged in a manner that forces the reader to interact with the content in a way that transcends the often passive nature of reading and this arrangement is why I am still thinking of this book as I had to look up the pictures Supervert references and think if my interpretation of them matched Supervert’s. I still find myself from time to time musing on where our interpretations were similar and not at all alike. This is a pretty little book, too. A treasure to own and an interactive experience to read.

5. Pearl by Mary Gordon
I loathed this book for the most part but the reason it still niggles in the back of my brain is because I am still shocked that a literary icon like Gordon wrote a book that by my own objective standards is so bad. The often pointless repetition of words and ideas seemed like Gordon assumed anyone reading the book had suffered a literary lobotomy. But most objective of all, I disliked the rarefied air occupied by all of the characters, which is not my usual response. I can read books about the idle rich without feeling like I want to grab a hammer and a sickle and run through the streets but Pearl aggravated me. Perhaps it is because I read the next book on my list so soon after reading Pearl but this book alienated me and forced me to examine why.

4. Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan
I read this soon after reading Pearl and the nature of the characters in this book underscored why Pearl irritated me. The leisurely life of Pearl and her high-minded moral struggles seemed ridiculous after reading Last Night at the Lobster, a story of people who work too hard for too little money and yet engage in their own moral struggles while trying to keep food on the table. I think this book proved to me that excessive leisure seldom leads to better thoughts. Reading about work, the kinds of work I have done (though I have never worked in a restaurant, most of my jobs centered around serving people, either by cleaning their toilets or by selling them shoes or books), appealed to me and while I missed rereading this at Yule, I will reread it around this time next year, as this story takes place at Christmas time at a dying mall in a town that is a lot like mine and probably a lot like yours.

3. The Woman Who Walked into Doors by Roddy Doyle
This book broke my heart, telling the story of a lower-middle class Irish woman, Paula, who has been failed by the men in her life. Her father abandoned her emotionally when she was in her teens, her husband beat her relentlessly. Her society failed her too, calling her stupid and putting her into a school where she was tormented by boys and made rough in order to endure their treatment. Part class struggle, part feminist struggle, part addiction story, this book is most notable because it was so well-written and so deeply moving even as it refuses to give the reader a sense that Paula will eventually be okay. When I saw a sale copy of the sequel to this book, Paula Spencer, I grabbed it with delight. I cannot wait to read it and see what became of Paula, to see if there will be true transcendence for her.

2. The Franklin Cover-up: Child Abuse, Satanism and Murder in Nebraska by John W. DeCamp
The details in this book, horrific though they were, did not resonate with me because aside from some of the bad acts of Larry King, the man who committed financial fraud and likely sexually abused children in Omaha, very little in this book had the ring of truth. Yet this book still pings the back of my brain because it generated the most personal e-mail responses I received from any book I discussed on both of my sites. The missives worry me, not because I fear they are right, but because I am concerned that there are so many people who still believe the Satanic Panic was real and that Bush 41 countenanced children being flown around to be defiled by debauched members of the GOP. But mostly this book is still hammering in my brain because of the sheer flood of human misery it has revealed to me. Whether or not I believe in the Satanic Panic, there are clearly people who sincerely do believe. People who believe terrible things happened to them, things that should have killed them by any objective analysis, and that teachers, doctors, politicians, police and preachers are all involved in a nation-wide cabal to beget, rape, murder, sacrifice and eat children. No matter how little I believe in many of the stories I received by people who wanted to counter my lack of belief in this book, the people who wrote me were filled with genuine pain, fear and horror and it is nothing short of heartbreaking.

1. House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski
This book nearly drove me insane reading it, because while in the past I had flirted with the book, I had never sat down and read it carefully word for word. I wonder now if there is a mechanism in the way words and pages are arranged that can make a reader go mad because I really did feel as if my mind was being manipulated as I read this book. It was, beyond a doubt, the most involved book I have ever read and even as I sit here, writing this up, I am going over details in my head, trying to make ends meet, trying to remember which clues led me to places that seemed rational. People either love or hate this book. I fear it because I worry that I will dive in again and go to that strange mental place wherein Johnny, Will and Karen occupy my every thought and each little detail takes off into a place where it has meaning that I come close to deciphering but never quite manage.

So now you know which books still occupy my mind. Please share with me the books that didn’t leave you this year, the maddening, beautiful, frightening, enlightening books that were a cut beyond all the others you read.

Have a lovely New Year’s Eve and may your 2011 be productive, interesting and full of books.

Published in: Uncategorized | on December 31st, 2010 | Comments Off

Senseless by Stona Fitch

Book: Senseless

Author: Stona Fitch

Type of Book: Fiction

Why Did I Read This Book: I don’t recall exactly but I think it was recommended on the LiveJournal community for disturbing books. I know I had it on my Amazon Wishlist for a while and ordered it one day when an affordable copy became available.

Availability: This book is out of print, but you can find used copies online from independent sellers:

Comments: When I first read this book, I thought it would be an excellent choice for my odd books discussion site. While the violence in this book is at times hard to read, ultimately this was not an odd book. This is not torture porn – it is literary fiction and very good fiction at that. The book is gripping and I read it very quickly. Still, as horrible as the violence was, it did not affect me deeply is because this sort of violence is pedestrian these days, unless it’s happening to you. Extremity of human degradation, the lengths some people are willing to go in order to achieve their ends, and the sense that perhaps those who live lives worthy of shame should be held to pay for their actions are not ideas that are particularly unique or shocking any more. We seem to be offended, at least culturally, when violence is committed against us or those like us, but there is no denying how inured we have become to the idea of retributive violence.

The plot of this book is deceptively simple: An American business man, Elliot Gast, is kidnapped in Belgium by extremists opposed to the European Union. Initially he is treated quite well in captivity, given books to read, plenty of food, and though he is bored and anxious, he is not in fear of his life. Then the black cables are snaked through the ceiling, recording every corner of the room where Gast is kept, recording him for audiences on the Internet. His captors then begin to deprive Gast of his senses, beginning, horribly enough, with his sense of taste. The attacks against him are paced out and one by one, basic things like touch, sound and smell are taken from him via acts of indifferent violence.

The key word for this book is indifference. Though the world around him is aware of his kidnapping, though Gast works every angle in his mind to try and escape his captors, his time in captivity is one of indifference. Not on his part, to be certain – Elliot Gast is filled with pain, terror, desperation and ultimately defiance, but his captors see him as little more than a pawn that can help or harm their cause. Gast initially feels a sort of connection with a doctor and a woman in the group, but even if they felt appalled at his treatment and how broadcasting it on the Internet makes them look, their response is not aimed at freeing Gast, but rather, battling those within their organization. Gast’s experiences at the hands of the terrorist group show that he means nothing to them even when they seemingly are on his side in terms of the abuse he suffers. Being the the clutches of his tormentors turns Gast into a thing. Deprived of most of the senses that allow a man to interact with the world, isolated from all normal human sympathy and concern, Gast is only human in terms of how he continues to perceive himself. To those who have captured him, he is no more than an important doll that bleeds.

The really senseless part of this book was not when Gast lost his senses one by one, not the seeming senselessness of the violence (because this violence did have sense behind it – all too often we confuse savagery with senselessness). The senselessness comes from knowing that all of us, with our habits, thoughts, emotions and quirks, can become that doll that Gast became in the eyes of anyone who considers us The Other and that, I think, is where the power in this book lies. We can become an example. Our suffering, while intense to us, can be depersonalized into a generic message of fear and through our pain and fear, we can become just one more horrific distraction in cyberspace. Maybe there is a message in such violence but chances are, people powerful enough to change the course of political events aren’t going to be the people watching as you forcibly lose your sense of smell.

Suffering in this book is senseless, in that is has little meaning aside from others imprinting their personal agenda on another man’s body.

Of course, Gast’s suffering has meaning to the people who inflict it. One of his torturers tells him:

“To truly change a man, you must take away what is important to him. You must take a rich man’s fortune. You must take a passionate man’s wife. You are a man of the senses, Elliot Gast. So we are eliminating them. By this method we can leave you thoroughly changed. Through your example, we can change thousands.”

This, of course, is not borne out by the events of the book. People are outraged that Gast is being held and tortured but no one is able to find him. No one is able to help him. And no one is changed by watching his suffering aside from the temporary shock one feels when watching atrocity. Written in 2001, this book had no way of knowing we would all one day be able to watch beheadings online as easily as we watch the latest silly cat videos that are part of the current informational memes. Elliot Gast was changed but the rest of the world marched on.

Perhaps the change in Gast is all that is necessary, in the context of the book. Immediately following the above quote, Gast recalls engaging in culinary atrocity. Tiny birds were force-fed buttered grains then drowned in alcohol. The tiny birds were then roasted and eaten, bones intact.

The waiters then draped each of us with a large linen napkin, explaining that these would capture the precious scent of the roasted birds.

“Or to hide your face from God,” our host joked. I looked closely at the tiny bird in my hand, roasted to a golden finish. Dipping the ortolan into a brandy butter reduction, I raised it and saw suddenly the darkened eye of the bird, no bigger than a tiny bead, glistening now with a tear of butter… Perhaps I was paying now for my various excesses…

I wonder if I am wrong, trying to seek a larger meaning behind the permanent damage done to Gast. Perhaps his personal epiphany, connecting the terrible things that happen to him with the suffering he was willing to inflict on tiny birds, on other peoples’ economic well-being, in order to engage in epicurean delight, is enough.

As I read this book, I was unsure if Gast was unreliable, or if I was missing a point because throughout the book, I seemed to understand things that Gast did not.

Although I regretted my role in this terrible game, I had to wonder what the response would be. What would it take to one-up Blackbeard? Ten online hostages? Live execution of innocents? Anything seemed horribly possible.

By the way, Blackbeard is the name Gast gives to his chief tormentor. Did Gast think the economic interests that were pushing the European Union would respond to this atrocity done him with anything other than words, possibly a trial of those who might end up arrested if it came to that? Did he genuinely think this sort of guerrilla violence would be answered, let alone countered? Why would a bank kidnap ten revolutionaries and torture them? Gast does not seem to understand that even though he has had his nostrils soldered, his tongue mutilated, that the terrorists still have little power. While in their hands, they seem like God to him, not the powerless entities they really are in the face of global banking and political systems.

However, Gast never loses site of himself even as he is made senseless. He refuses to cooperate in any manner, fighting as much as he can, refusing to do what his captors ask of him. In order to increase the theater of the torture, his captors want him to scream, to yell in pain, to fight overtly instead of rebel passively. At one point, Blackbeard tells Gast that his Internet pain show is making the terrorist group lots of money, 10% of which will be his if only he will cooperate and scream in pain. Gast, who is clueless in some respects, hopes it is true he will be permitted to leave if he does what is asked of him but doesn’t take such promises to heart. Instead, he hopes he can unmask Blackbeard in front of one of the cameras, revealing his face to the millions Blackbeard says are watching, making him a marked man. Instead of railing against his tormentors when he is left alone, he is resolute – all the ghouls who are watching will get is a man kicking a wall over and over and over. Moreover, it is hard to tell if Blackbeard is taunting Gast, asking him to participate in his own torture, or if Blackbeard genuinely thinks Gast is so craven he would think screaming in agony for a cut of the profits a good deal. In a book about senselessness, it is hard to know which character actually has any sense.

Throughout the book, Gast seems to have a connection with a woman he calls Nin (because her brown eyes remind him of Anaïs Nin, the erotic diarist), and though she seems to have a terrible time reconciling what her group is doing to Gast, Nin’s final actions are in a way the most senseless element in the book. But that is just a knee-jerk reaction. It is only senseless if one is accustomed to the idea that people who are kind always act uniformly and in ways that we can understand. Gast feels deceived, but only a Hollywood ending could have made this turn out any differently.

I wish for all in the world that I could quote the final paragraph in this book but to do so would give too much away and this complex book is one that should not be spoiled. The last line brings to mind Erasmus, whom it certainly comes from, but also Vonnegut, because Gast is changed and the world around him is not. Whether or not his suffering and permanent damage is worth the epiphany he experiences is not a question I am ready to answer. I suspect I will read this book again in a couple of years and see what I think then. If I do, I will also read again Waiting for the Barbarians by Coetzee and think hard about violence and the world. Increasingly I think the message of this book is that the world is there, but all that matters is your personal redemption. But who knows. In a few years I may think differently. This book is largely a character study, but it will make you contemplate violence, the world around you and how it is you could be the criminal in the eyes of another.

Published in: Uncategorized | on July 30th, 2010 | Comments Off

Amazon reviews are hinky? The hell you say!

I never look at reviews on Amazon, though the site is the place where I purchase the bulk of my books. Though the story of Orlando Figes’ wife’s antics on Amazon UK is a fun read, it encapsulates all the reasons why I never review books on Amazon and why I give them little weight when I do read them.

Published in: Uncategorized | on April 19th, 2010 | Comments Off

Eulogy for Adolph Cat, 1992(?) – 2010

I don’t discuss my personal life in my review journals outside of how my own life affects my reviews to some degree. But I felt the need to eulogize my cat Adolph, who died on 2/19/10. So if you come here for the books and only the books, that’s cool, just give this a miss. It is long, wordy and extremely picture heavy, but he was with me for almost 15 years and, frankly, writing these things out helps me put things in perspective.

Adolph was a cat larger than life. He was the first animal who lived with me, and I was 24 when he came into my life. I will be 40 this year – my entire adult life was spent with that incredible cat. I am not one to anthropomorphize my cats – they are cats, pets, and not my babies or friends or relatives. My relationship with them does not need honorary human status for it to be very special. Nothing wrong with either approach to animal companions – it’s just how I interact with my cats.

Not so with Adolph. He was not our pet. He was our peer. He was our gross roommate who refused to get a job. He was amazingly intelligent, knew us inside and out and understood that we were flawed and loved us regardless because he knew we loved him in spite of his flaws. He was insistent, needy, imperious, a bully, weird, gross and intrusive. He was empathetic, loving, caring, smart, adorable, silly, and loved all humans – all of them, big, small, scary, cute. There was no sensible person he could not charm, even when he acted up.

When he first experienced renal failure and had to spend a couple of days at the vet, they gave up keeping him in a cage during the day. He upset his water bowl several times and howled and howled, so they let him out during the day, letting him have the run of the place. He mocked the dogs in the dog run, greeted people at the front desk. Several people asked if he was up for adoption, he was so funny and interesting. So while I am biased, I know others saw his roguish charms and gave into them, too.

First pic ever
This is the first picture I ever took of Adolph. I don’t have many pics of his early days. No dig cams then and I was very broke. Film was a luxury that I now wish I had spent more money on since I have so few pics of our early days. It was 1995 and he was around 2 years old.

Here’s Adolph’s life, what I can think of telling right now. He was truly an amazing cat.

Published in: Uncategorized | on February 22nd, 2010 | Comments Off